Hayden Thorpe and his three bandmates may be the most elegant sounding wild beasts in pop music. Thorpe's operatic voice and the band's crystalline sparkle exude a grandeur uncharacteristic of most indie rock. But don't let that fool you: Wild Beasts truly are wild; they roam a cerebral landscape of Britpop hillsides and glam-rock vistas; their music possesses a barbarous unpredictability that makes any influences or similarities to other artists fairly difficult to make credible.
This is why most of the comparisons that have been made to Antony and the Johnsons are just lazy. Thorpe and Antony Hegarty may share a similarly theatrical vocal style, but the Johnsons's chamber pop is wrought with gloom and melancholy while Wild Beasts are quite contrastingly playful and altogether effervescent. Thorpe also possesses a fuller vocal range than Hegarty: He covers the entire spectrum, from the deep, oily croon of Joy Division's Ian Curtis to the falsetto shriek of Axl Rose.
Two Dancers sees Thorpe pull even more of an androgynous magic act than he did on Wild Beasts's 2008 debut, Limbo, Panto. Opener "The Fun Powder Plot," for instance, is pure sexual ambiguity. The song struts along what sounds almost like a sped-up Tool guitar riff cleaned of all feedback, with Thorpe's voice dancing atop its highest register. It's a beautiful song that's dragged through the dirt by its lyrics: "This is a booty call/my boot, your asshole/This is a Freudian slip/My slipper in your bits." The schoolyard bully banter coupled with Thorpe's porcelain-doll delivery creates a jarring dissonance between machismo and sensitivity. It's a clash of grace and grim that sets the stage perfectly for the rest of the album: Lead single "Hooting and Howling" furthers Thorpe's transformation from drag queen into alpha male as he sings, "Any rival who goes for our girls/Will be left thumb-sucking in terror/And bereft of all coffin bearers." His voice sinks from that lofty falsetto into a grungy growl, and suddenly these boys are ready to brawl. All this culminates with Two Dancers's best song, "All the King's Men." Swaying blithely on a cheerful tom-and-snare line, the song blooms into glorious, Tears for Fears-inspired new wave and a macho sailor's chant, featuring Thorpe's most liberated vocals to date.
These first three songs give Two Dancers more than enough legs on which to stand, but the record ultimately isn't a completely thorough effort. The band never maintains that level of perfection, which may be too much to ask, but that's what happens when the bar is set so high so early. And yet, for the most part, the songs that fill out the rest of the album are still deeply moving. "We Still Got the Taste Dancing on Our Tongues" is built around an auspiciously atmospheric guitar riff that tips its hat to early U2, while album closer "The Empty Nest" glimmers with cavernous reverb (if the earlier songs were some kind of subtle battle between beauty and ugliness, "Empty Nest" declares proudly that the former has won.)
Two Dancers is a striking, dynamic album, and will deservedly land on many year-end lists. If the album's momentum wanes a bit after the opening three tracks, that's less a criticism of its consistency and more a testament to the band's tremendous opening hat trick. With maybe one or two exceptions, any album this year would be lucky to have any one of these tracks, let alone three. Wild Beasts are fast becoming masters of their own brand of weird glamour. Don't let this exotic animal out of your sight.